Disappearance remains a mystery | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | March 16, 2016 5:00 am
Last Updated: March 16, 2016 at 12:50 pm
Family court places three children in foster care until officials determine why and how they disappeared.
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
Colleton County Sheriff’s Office investigators are still piecing together information that they hope will lead them to identify who played a role in the disappearance of three young children from their Smoaks area home on the evening of March 9.
Until then, Colleton County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jason Chapman told Colleton County Family Court Judge Gerald Smoak Monday morning, law enforcement officers are asking that the children not be returned to their home.
Chapman, who heads the sheriff’s office’s investigations unit, was the lone witness in a Monday morning probable cause hearing conducted by Smoak in a rare open Family Court session.
Jillian Ullman, a S.C. Department of Social Services attorney, petitioned Judge Smoak to close the probable cause hearing to the media and general public.
She asked for the closed-door hearing to safeguard the three children (ages 2, 3 and 4) who disappeared March 9 at about 6 p.m. The children were discovered locked in a closet in a vacant trailer on Bent Gate Lane, 17 hours later.
Protecting the children’s identity was not an option as Smoak pondered the DSS request.
The sheriff’s office had released the children’s names and ages and distributed pictures of the two girls and one boy in an effort to secure the general public’s assistance in locating the children.
That information was released early in the search for the missing children, when law enforcement officers were working under the assumption that the children had wandered off.
As the search of the Bent Gate Lane wound on, investigators began to suspect that their disappearance might be an abduction.
That suspicion grew March 10, shortly before noon, when the three children were found in the vacant mobile home near where they had last been seen.
Some residents of the area commented to the media and on Facebook that the children had been in the closet the whole time — that the sheriff’s office had failed to adequately search the structure.
“We know those children were not in that house — we’re dead certain,” Lt. Shane Roberts, the sheriff’s office public information officer, said in a March 11 interview.
Roberts said shortly after deputies responded to the report of the missing children, every vacant building in the area, the entire 400 block of Bent Gate Lane, was searched, including the trailer where the three were found 17 hours later.
“They were not in that house when the officers searched,” Roberts said. The search, he added, “was very in-depth.”
Roberts said the closet doors were not closed when officers first searched. Every closet was checked; the ventilation duct work was checked. Roberts himself checked the crawl space under the trailer. “Absolutely everything was checked,” he said.
Residents of the area searched for the children for approximately 30 minutes before notifying the sheriff’s office about the disappearance.
The first officers to respond were quickly supplemented by other members of the sheriff’s office — over 40 members of the sheriff’s office were estimated to have been involved in the search.
In addition, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources assigned personnel to the search and dispatched an aircraft with thermal imaging capability. The Charleston Sheriff’s Office Aviation Division sent another aircraft with thermal imaging ability to the scene to try to find the heat images from the missing children.
Rumors circulated that as the night wore on, the search was postponed until first light. Chapman told the court that the sheriff’s office had never abandoned the search through the night: some officers were sent home to rest, but others remained in the area throughout the night.
Some wondered why an Amber Alert was not transmitted. Chapman explained that Amber Alert is maintained by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division under specific guidelines. Because the sheriff’s office was working under the perception that the children had wandered off, Chapman said, the situation did not meet the guidelines for an Amber Alert.
However, he added, the sheriff’s office did send a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) to other law enforcement agencies, as well as alerting residents in a five-mile area to the disappearance through the reverse 911 system. Emails were also sent out to residents of the Smoaks area.
In that March 11 interview, Roberts said, the questions for which investigators have yet to find answers include:
1. How did the children leave the area?
2. How did the children get into vacant home?
3. Who put the children there?
Tuesday morning Roberts said that those questions still remain unanswered.
Chapman, during the probable cause hearing, testified that investigators were still far from “pointing the finger” at a suspect or suspects.
He added that while the probable cause hearing was under way, investigators were conducting interviews and re-interviews. In some cases, the interviews involved polygraphs. Officers were still out collecting evidence.
On the afternoon of March 10, a few hours after the children were found and reunited with their parents and custodians, members of the sheriff’s office and the Colleton County Department of Social Services were back on Bent Gate Lane to take the three children into protective custody.
State law requires that a probable cause hearing be held 72 hours after a child is taken into custody. When the 72 hours expires over a weekend, the hearing is required to be held the court’s next business day.
The hearing was necessary to show that officials suspected the children had been subjected to abuse or neglect.
Legal jargon required that the four adults at the probable cause hearing be considered defendants. The parents of the young boy, who now live in Columbia, did not attend the hearing.
Chapman was quick to point out from the stand that the investigators did not believe that those at the hearing were involved. He suggested that the adults, like the children, were victims in the incident.
“Someone betrayed you,” Chapman told them.
Law enforcement officials, Chapman explained, were uncomfortable allowing the children to be returned to Bent Gate Lane for fear that whoever had taken the children would try again.
Because the adults were not considered suspects, Chapman added, the sheriff’s office had no problem with the court allowing them to have visitation rights. But he said the law enforcement officers would be more comfortable if those visits were supervised.
After pondering the question long and hard, Smoak found probable cause for the original decision to take the children into protective custody and ordered that they remain in protective custody with visitation rights for the parents and custodians.
Smoak also scheduled a merit hearing, a legal proceeding similar to a preliminary hearing in criminal court, for April 5 if the investigation continues to be unproductive and the children have not been returned home by then.